Rainfall in upper Kissimmee basin means lake level will continue to rise

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WEST PALM BEACH — Lake Okeechobee, which is at 16.39 feet above sea level today (Nov. 12), is expected to continue to rise due to runoff from rainfall in the upper Kissimee basin.

“I was hoping a week ago to be in position to start working on what the future holds in terms of La Niña and the dry season,” Col. Andrew Kelly of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Governing Board at their Thursday, Nov. 12, meeting.

He said the plans for this year’s dry season, “if it ever shows up,” will be very different from last year. In 2019, the district started the dry season in “water conservation mode.”

“None of the years are the same,” said Kelly. “Every one has a different kind of focus.”

The effects from Tropical Storm Eta are still unknown, he said. “Going into this we had anticipated a potential of 10-inch rise on the lake,” Kelly continued. “I don’t think we’re going to see that. We have seen some significant rise. I don’t think it’s going to get quite to 17 feet.”

Eta dropped a lot of rain in the upper Kissimmee basin last night, said SFWMD Executive Director Drew Bartlett. “Water runs downhill.”

The lake “is going to keep rising with no rain,” agreed SFWMD board member Ron Bergeron, noting the drainage from the north will continue to flow into Lake Okeechobee.

“We’re going to have to work very closely with the corps and look at every avenue to move water,” he said.

“We started adding some flexibility into how we do business,” said Kelly. “Those are very challenging and very difficult decisions in real time.”

This year the corps make made a significant choice in the middle of that steep rise of the lake level, he said. “We made a conscious decision to hold off releasing as long as possible,” explained Kelly. That decision “forced us into a higher rate of release in the future.”

Kelly complimented the SFWMD staff on their cooperation in moving water whenever and wherever possible. “We were doing things all together at the same time on a daily, weekly basis,” he said. “We were moving water as best we could to find every place we could put it.

“Usually when hard decisions need to be made, people tend to stop talking, but that was absolutely not the case,” he said.

In response to the high level of Lake Okeechobee, on Oct. 14, the corps started releasing water from the lake east to the St. Lucie Canal and west to the Caloosahatchee River. The release schedule calls for flow of 4,000 cubic feet (cfs) per second from the lake at the Moore Haven Lock on the Caloosahatchee and 1,800 cfs to the St. Lucie River, measured at the St. Lucie Lock. Because the St. Lucie Lock is 23.9 miles from Port Mayaca, where the lake connects to the St. Lucie Canal, the flow at the St. Lucie Lock is a mixture of lake water and local basin runoff. For the past seven days, flow at Port Mayaca was 746 cfs.

In their Nov. 12 meeting, water managers also discussed the continuing problems with flooding in the area south of the Tamiami Trail and east of Everglades National Park, often called the 8.5 square mile area or Las Palmas. The entire community is outside of the protection levee, which separates the historic Everglades from the urban developments of the east coast.

He said the Las Palmas community has been the focus of discussion and a lot of litigation over the years. The federal government and SFWMD bought some of the property on the western side and turned it into a buffer zonea and a protective levee was constructed around the western edge of the 8.5-square-mile area, he said.

But as the restoration projects put more water in Shark River Slough, some that water seeps off to the east.

Before Tropical Storm Eta, there was already flooding, he said, but with the current situation it has been extremely challenging this year.

Several SFWMD board members asked if it would be more cost-effective to buy the properties on the western side of Las Palmas that are most prone to flooding than to continue to add projects to attempt to change the flow of water.

According to SFWMD staff, there are about 21 home sites in the western area.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we had 21 willing sellers of homes?” asked SFWMD Governing Board member Cheryl Meads. “I can’t image how miserable it is for those 21 homes.”

SFWMD board member Jay Steinle said different areas of Las Palmas appear to have different levels of flood exposure. The central area, which is between two canals, is not as exposed.

“As we’re considering the curtain wall, the seepage canal or a combination of both, we’re going to have an assessment of costs that will be done in comparison with cost of purchasing the area prone to flooding,” said Steinle.

“We can put up mitigating infrastructure or we can purchase properties — hopefully from willing sellers,” he said.

SFWMD Governing Board Chairman Chauncey Goss said the area of concern appears be less than 2 square miles.

“Can we not contact them and find out if they are willing sellers? They are going to continue to have problems there no matter what we do,” said Meads.

SFWMD Director of Ecosystem Restoration and Capital Projects Jennifer Reynolds said SFWMD is working with Miami-Dade County “who has had some folks approach them as willing sellers.”

She said they are looking at acquisition of property as part of the solution.

Referring to the water flow map, SFWMD board member Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch said the 8.5-square-mile area was part of the original so-called “River of Grass.”

“That’s where the water wants to go,” she said. “It makes sense to allow the water to go there.”

She said seepage walls and other efforts to redirect the flow of water are fighting nature.

“You can’t stop the river completely, I don’t think,” she said. “It’s only going to get worse for the people that live there.

“It’s not healthy to have your house wet over and over again,” said Meads.

SFWMD board member Charlette Roman said she’d made a site visit to that area. “We ought to look at the option of buying out the property owners who are willing sellers,” she said.

“We need to evaluate the seepage wall in terms of the benefit,” she added. “It wouldn’t have relieved the high water conditions they are experiencing completely.”

Bergeron said they have three alternatives: buy the western portion, install a seepage canal and pump to collect water and move it west, or build a seepage wall.

He said in the modeling for each option, they should consider future phases of Everglades restoration, which will increase flow in that area.

“This is always going to be a problem,” he said. “It’s difficult to calculate direct rainfall in terms of flooding as opposed to seepage.

“They are going to have flooding,” he added. “They have no internal drainage that I can see. They are going to have flood conditions whether we build a wall.

“It may be the only alternative is for that land to be taken,” Bergeron said.

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